Wednesday, May 13, 2020

My April in Paris - Radiguet, Cendrars, and Janet Flanner - plus James Agee, who I forgot yesterday

I forgot a book yesterday, an odd bird.

James Agee, Permit Me Voyage (1934).  A few good lyric poems.  A weird prose dedication/manifesto.  Some perfect imitations of 17th century forms.  A lot of this book felt like the portfolio of a brilliant undergraduate. I suppose that’s what it is.  The sonnet sequence in particular is full of beauties.  A tribute to Hart Crane ends the book and gives it a title.

Agee was the Hot Young Poet for a couple of years because of this book; a perverse cuss, he immediately abandoned poetry for journalism.  Perfectly consistent with his strange career.  The only other book of his I’ve actually read is a collection of his movie reviews.

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What did I read in French in April?

Henri Bosco’s novel Malicroix (1948) I covered earlier.

Blaise Cendrars, Vol à voile (Glide, maybe or Gliding, 1932), a short autobiographical prose piece about the time Frédéric-Louis Sauser ran away from his boring bourgeois Swiss home and especially his fat, sad father to begin his life of adventure and eventually literature.  It is probably mostly invented, fiction, which is fine with me.  The telling is enjoyably scrambled, with the story beginning on the Trans-Siberian railroad, where a Jewish merchant is telling Cendrars all about the functioning of the tea caravans.  Then back to Switzerland.  The last episode, is about Sauser / Cendrars applying for a job in a Munich piano store.  I don’t know how any of this really fits together.

Cendrars’s French is quite difficult.

***

Raymond Radiguet, Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel (The Ball of the Count of Orgel, 1924).  Another child star.  He wrote Le Diable au Corps (Devil in the Flesh, 1923) when he was seventeen.  It is about a teenage sociopath’s sexual affair with the young woman, barely older, whose husband is away at the front.  Even a teenage prodigy only has so much autobiographical novelistic material, so this next novel is an elaborate pastiche of classic triangle novels like The Princess of Cleves (1678) and Dangerous Liaisons (1782), updated to contemporary Paris.  I felt it should have been more fun than it was, more fizzy, more like Ronald Firbank.  One character, for example, is a Persian prince “with the largest car in the world” (“la plus grosse voiture du monde,” p. 38 in the original edition).  But there was only a little bit of that kind of jolly nonsense.

Radiguet, who died at age 20, spent his last year, whirlwinding literary Paris as Jean Cocteau’s boyfriend.  I will bet that would have made for a good novel.

Radiguet’s French is not so hard.

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Joseph Kessel, Les Jours de l’aventure: Reportages, 1930-1936 (The Days of Adventure).  Journalism.  I want to save this one for its own post, when I finish the last adventure, The Snipers of Barcelona.

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Janet Flanner, Paris Was Yesterday: 1925-1939.  Not in French, merely about.  Flanner was inventing her role as the New Yorker’s Paris dispatcher, and she becomes better at it – she becomes a better writer – as she figures out what she is doing.  The idea is to tell New Yorker readers what is happening in Paris, in politics and the arts and the crime report.  She becomes expert at sharp, short biographical profiles, often obituaries or some kind of anniversary piece, or covering a new celebrity, like Georges Simenon in 1931:

He is of Breton Dutch stock, is handsome, can write an excellent book in four days (one was started in a glass cage, for publicity’s sake), lives on a yacht in canals, and has used sixteen pseudonyms, of which Simenon (the signature of the latest dozen of his books) will probably become permanent. (77)

A writer could learn something from a sentence like that.  Flanner is never present in her pieces.  She is not like her successor.  No Gopnikizing.

Near the end of the book, Flanner’s job shifts.  Her columns often bear the ironic label “Peace in Our Time,” and she shifts to a different kind of journalism, until it becomes “War in Our Time,” and the book ends.

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